We all know someone that is super strict about how many meals he/she eats per day, but has no control over the number of calories those meals contain. This is a classic case of “missing the forest for the trees.” In this article, I will show you why meal frequency does not deserve as much attention as many people think and what you should focus on instead.
Meal frequency, Energy Balance and Fat Loss
The energy balance describes the relationship between “energy in” (calories consumed) and “energy out” (calories burned).
- If the number of calories consumed is higher than the number of calories burned, you gain fat (positive energy balance).
- If the number of calories consumed is lower than the number of calories burned, you burn fat (negative energy balance).
The scientific law of thermodynamics shows that energy can’t be destroyed, only transformed. So a surplus of energy has to be stored (fat gain) and an energy deficit needs to be ”compensated” by internal reserves (fat loss).
This is relevant because no matter how many meals you consume a day, the energy balance eventually dictates whether you will lose or gain fat. Research is very clear on this:
- A study by the University of Ottawa compared consuming 3 meals with 6 meals a day while matching total caloric and macronutrient intake. They found no difference in terms of fat loss.
- An extensive research review done by French scientists found no significant difference in weight loss when consuming 1 to up to 17(!) meals a day while matching total caloric intake.
As you can see, meal frequency doesn’t seem to affect fat loss whatsoever.
How about your metabolism?
Contrary to common belief, consuming multiple small meals a day does not boost your metabolism, and consuming a couple of big meals a day does not harm it. Multiple studies show that meal frequency has no significant effect on your metabolism and total daily energy expenditure.
Also, not eating for a while won’t make you go into “survival mode.” Research shows that your metabolism starts slowing down after approximately 60 hours of fasting. I don’t think anyone reading this will ever fast for 60 hours straight.
Meal Frequency, Intermittent Fasting and Muscle Growth
For decades, bodybuilders have been telling us to spread protein requirements equally throughout the day. To do this, you will need to consume multiple smaller meals (typically 6). This claim is understandable since muscle protein synthesis is an energy demanding process. Muscle protein synthesis basically is the ”muscle-building process”.
There’s research showing that consuming protein frequently is more effective than having just a few protein servings. The problem with many of these studies is that total protein intake is not matched between the groups.
Those who consume protein more frequently tend to consume more protein in a day compared to those who only have protein in a few meals.
That likely is part of the reason why we tend to find greater muscle growth when higher protein feeding frequencies are used. Up to a certain point, higher protein intakes simply make you gain more muscle.
But when protein intakes are matched, a 2013 meta-analysis led by Dr. Brad Schoenfeld shows that how much protein you consume is far more important than when you consume it. Here’s a quote out of this research paper:
Perceived hypertrophic benefits seen in protein timing studies appear to be the result of an increased consumption of protein as opposed to temporal factors. In our reduced model, the amount of protein consumed was highly and significantly associated with hypertrophic gains. (Schoenfeld et al. 2013)
Research regarding intermittent fasting also shows that a high meal frequency is not a necessity to build muscle. Individuals who do intermittent fasting consume no calories for the bigger part of the day and reach their nutritional needs in 4-10 hours.
Not eating for 14-20 hours may sound horrible for muscle growth, but there’s evidence showing it’s similar to eating regularly throughout the day, as long as total caloric and macronutrient intake is matched, of course.
What about fasted training?
Muscle breakdown increases during fasted training. The fact that you get a great anabolic response after breaking your fast, may offset the increased breakdown during training. This would help explain why intermittent fasting has been shown to preserve muscle as effectively as eating regularly throughout the day.
As far as workout performance goes, it depends per person. There’s research showing that fasted training has no significant effect on workout performance, but your personal experience may be different.
The Bottom Line on Meal Frequency
Hopefully, this post has made it clear that meal frequency has a negligible effect on fat loss, metabolic adaptations, and muscle growth. As long as you reach your nutritional needs for a given day, meal frequency won’t make or break your progress.
Therefore, how many meals you should consume per day mostly depends on your personal preference. Pick a meal frequency that is most enjoyable for you and you can stick with it.
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